Jean Thompson has written two novels and a previous short story collection; she has won prestigious fellowships and awards; she has been a nominee for the National Book Award (for her first collection, Who Do You Love, in 1999). Her stories are widely anthologized, and she is admired by some gifted and established writers—Richard Russo, Pam Huston, and David Sedaris, to name three. Still, her work is new to me.
I consider myself converted. Her amazing new collection Throw Like a Girl is a revelation. The collection moves from adolescence through late middle age, and each story has a woman—or girl—at its center. We begin with Iris, twelve and full of hate for everyone in her life: her mother, her father, her brother. On the way to school in the family car, she does “her best to pretend she was something insensate and boneless.” “Here was school,” Thompson writes. “Iris grabbed her backpack. Her mother put on her blinker to pull up to the curb. How lame was that! God.”
In one stroke, Thompson nails the frustrated anger central to being twelve, when a mother putting on the turn signal can be a sign of all that is excruciatingly embarrassing about having a mother, about being seen, about just being. This sense of humor makes the collection soar. It’s a kind of deadpan comic timing that simultaneously captures the colloquial tone of her characters’ inner monologues and skewers their limited worldview without ever losing affection (hers or ours) for the character.
Another such moment comes in “Inside Passage,” about a woman whose affair with a married man has ended. She goes off on a cruise to Alaska partly to soothe her bruised ego, but also to impress him with her dramatic flair. She takes a bus to the glacier, hoping to call him from there: “But when I got to the glacier there wasn’t any phone. The visitors’ center was the rustic kind, with plaques talking about eskers and lateral moraines and outwash plains. There was a nature trail and a telescope. I was really upset about the phone, like, who ever heard of a glacier without a phone?” That perfectly placed “like” sets up the punchline: we recognize the broken-hearted woman’s frustration and get to laugh at her blindness in assuming the necessary connection between glaciers and phones. But her attention at the visitors’ center, the precise vocabulary of lateral moraines, keeps the character in our affections: she is a smart woman, a “good girl” who reads the plaques, someone whose affair—and its pathetic end—has taken her by surprise.
There is refreshing variety of characters and settings in this collection: we meet teenage mothers, college students, secretaries and low-level clerks, and homemakers. None of this feels like variety for its own sake. Instead, Thompson seems genuinely curious about all the strange situations these women find themselves in. Sometimes that strangeness is a little calculated, as in the thoughts of a girl on the lam with a sociopathic boyfriend. More successful is the ordinary oddness of a childless woman’s depressing life: she is stuck caring for her hostile teenaged niece and nephew whose mother (her sister) resides permanently in a mental institution. Here and elsewhere, Thompson captures the moments in life when, after a cascade of events, one might suddenly find oneself contemplating firing a gun, or throwing away one’s pills, or getting on a plane to Thailand, or joining the army.
Several of the women in Throw Like a Girl, to their surprise, are having affairs. In “A Normal Life,” an affair has turned into a marriage, with angry children and ex-spouses on both sides. Chad and Melanie just want “a normal life” after all the secrets, but even though the newly married lovers tell themselves “they had leapt and grasped at happiness, made purposeful invigorating choices,” the normal life in the second marriage looks a lot like what was both comfortable and dull in the first one. How can you find adventure when you’re a 43-year-old woman who has an online import business married to a 45-year-old man who sells ads on a local radio station? But find adventure they do.
Thompson’s ear for the worries of small-town dwellers is pitch-perfect. I heard it myself when I lived in a tiny town in Indiana and have seen filmmaker Michael Moore capture it, too: that belief, stoked by fear-mongers, that our tiny hamlet may be the very next target of the terrorists. As poor Mrs. Colley, a woman not over-fond of watching the news thinks, “What if something in Hi Ho were to blow up? The grain elevator, for instance, or the American Legion. Hi Ho would be the last place you’d expect something like that to happen, and that was exactly why it would be targeted.” This is from “Pie of the Month,” a story about two Iowa matrons with a small pie-baking business. While Mrs. Colley copes thanks to her Rainbow pills, the news of impending war with Iraq and the changes of globalization intrude stubbornly and aggressively on her once safe, small world:
In August, everyone’s water bills doubled. It came out that the water utility had been bought up by a company in Belgium. Belgium! Most people in Hi Ho were unaware that you could do such a thing as sell the water, and it was unclear why anyone in Belgium should own a lot of the water in Iowa. It was some consolation that Belgium was not one of the hot countries; when people looked it up on maps, it was right up there with normal nations like France and Germany.
Thompson’s humor is here, though this joke about the “normal nations” may be a touch too easy. What I admire most is how she navigates divide between Hi Ho, Iowa, where little has changed in decades, and the 21st century, where things are changing inexplicably, rapidly, and without concern for much beyond corporate profits. The water company explains the rate hike as a security measure—odd, Mrs. Colley thinks, as the workers keep the side gate wide open in the summer so as to park their cars in the shade. She is not quite ready to say that the company has lied.
Throw Like a Girl is a moving collection. Thompson has been compared to Raymond Carver, and it is true that her characters are ordinary people, many of them very gifted drinkers. She also has been compared to Alice Munro, and it’s true that, like Munro, she focuses on the regular lives of women who seek a sliver of hope in the flatlands at the center of North America. But Thompson’s voice is not as stylized as Carver’s, her vision is not as dark as Russo or Munro’s. For all the dark in Thompson’s stories, they are also full of tender humor, of sympathy for the women who, willfully or witlessly, stumble through life. Although not a Southern writer, Thompson’s blend of tenderness, irony, humor, and unblinking realism recalls the work of Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, and Eudora Welty. But she is her own thing: a great writer with a gift for showing us the dignity and pathos in every life.
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